PHNOM PENH: Cambodia’s king appointed Hun Sen’s son the country’s new leader Monday, beginning a handover of power that ends nearly four decades of rule, but the outgoing premier promised this was “not the end” of his political career.
King Norodom Sihamoni issued a royal decree appointing Hun Manet as prime minister, after Hun Sen had announced last month that he was stepping down and handing power to his eldest son.
Hun Sen — one of the world’s longest-serving leaders — made the announcement days after a landslide victory in July polls that were widely decried as a sham, after main challenger the Candlelight Party was barred from participating.
To officially assume the post, 45-year-old Hun Manet and his cabinet must win an August 22 vote in parliament, where his father’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has all but five of 125 seats in the lower house.
Hun Sen has for years pursued a ruthless campaign against any opposition, banning parties and forcing adversaries to flee abroad.
While insisting he would not interfere with his son’s rule, Hun Sen promised on Monday he would continue to play a prominent political role.
“It is not the end yet,” he said, adding he would continue serving in other positions until at least 2033.
After stepping down, Hun Sen has said he will become president of the Senate early next year, making him acting head of state when the king is overseas.
In a letter to the king, Hun Manet thanked him for “the great chance to serve the nation”, pledging to maintain peace, push for development and improve the standard of living in the country.
Longtime opposition politician Sam Rainsy, self-exiled in France, said any hopes for more freedom under Hun Manet or that he might distance the country from major benefactor China were misguided.
“I think this is pure illusion,” he told AFP ahead of the appointment. “You can change leaders many times but nothing will change because the system remains the same.”
The incoming government will usher in a crop of young ministers, with some taking posts vacated by their fathers.
Despite being groomed for years, Hun Manet remains untested in the political arena and relatively unknown beyond it, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of “Hun Sen’s Cambodia.”
It is very hard to determine any distinctive national vision,” he said.
Hun Manet was educated in England and the United States, but there are few signs he would bring his country closer to Western powers.
“I have not seen any evidence that Manet has either the ability or the desire to push Cambodia in the direction of significant reform,” Strangio said.
He said Hun Manet’s decisions would be “dictated by” the country’s rigid political system, requiring him to maintain the loyalty of the political establishment, business elite and security forces.
Hun Manet is a member of the ruling party’s powerful permanent committee, and has been the Royal Cambodian Army’s commander since 2018.
Dependence on China
He has previously met world leaders, including China’s President Xi Jinping, Cambodia’s main ally.
Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer, at Australia’s University of New South Wales, told AFP Cambodia would likely remain close to Beijing.
“Hun Manet will have little choice but to accept the hand that is dealt him, that is, dependency on China to keep the CPP in power,” he said.
Hun Sen has rejected international condemnation that last month’s polls were unfair, saying the handover was done to avoid “bloodshed” should he die in office.
A former Khmer Rouge cadre, Hun Sen has run the kingdom since 1985.
He helped modernize a country ravaged by decades of civil war and genocide, although critics say his rule has also been marked by environmental destruction and entrenched graft.
Rights groups accuse Hun Sen of using the legal system to crush any opposition to his rule — jailing scores of activists, union leaders and lawmakers.